Sayed Kashua takes a plane on 9/11
The Haaretz columnist runs out of patience at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Why is he doing it?, I thought to myself as I sat amid the German audience and listened to the remarks of the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair as he talked about his book, “The Malady of Islam.” He was unsparing in his criticism of Salafites and Islamists around the world, especially in Tunisia. It’s not that I disagree with this critique, but still, I thought to myself, why was he voicing it to a mainly German audience?
Meddeb was taking part in a panel discussion at the International Literature Festival in Berlin, purportedly on the subject of the Arab Spring. On the stage with him were the Egyptian journalist and writer Yasmine El Rashidi, a German moderator and a German interpreter.
Why not, actually? I tried to calm myself in the face of Meddeb’s stinging criticism. Intellectual integrity obliges one to express those views on every stage, irrespective of the identity of the audience; but I still wasn’t sure. It would be one thing if he lived in his country and not in Paris, or wrote in Arabic and not in French. And his Arabic was excellent compared to that of the Egyptian writer, who, despite the moderator’s request, insisted on replying in English rather than Arabic, because she “feels more comfortable with [that language].” The common denominator of the Arabic language, I thought, as I received a text message from my wife in Hebrew: “Did you get what I asked for at the duty-free shop?”
The German moderator asked about the changes that had occurred between September 11, 2001, and the revolutions in the Arab world. Eleven years have passed since then, he noted. It was only then that I realized I had flown on September 11, which explained the behavior of the security personnel a few hours earlier at Ben-Gurion Airport. Not that they’re nice on regular days. But this time the line for bag checks was long, even though it’s not a peak tourist season, and also for the checks before you were allowed into the duty-free shop. “They should be ashamed,” said a young Austrian woman who was behind me in the line. To which an Englishman, who was with his wife and child, added, “If they don’t want us to come here, they should say so from the start. This is outrageous.”
I tried to console them, telling them they were lucky because this was the line of the really good people. The older I get, the less patience I have with Ben-Gurion Airport. I had to stop myself from shouting at the young guys who wore black jackets and held two-way radios. Bloated with importance, they ignore you completely; conduct slow, impolite searches accompanied by a contemptuous expression for the travelers they are dealing with, forgetting that we are not suspects of any kind − that these are just people who are not Jewish. I almost cursed the security woman who escorted me to the ticket counters after the check, until she gestured with the back of her hand as a signal to me: “Get going.”
The Egyptian writer described the impact of September 11 on the West’s perception of Arabs. She could no longer remain in the United States, she said, because of the attitude of the U.S. media and public. She noted that the image had begun to change thanks to the quiet revolution in Tahrir Square: here were Arabs who wanted democracy, men and women standing together, Muslims alongside Christians, calling for freedom and democracy. It was a momentary switch, and she didn’t know if it was still in effect.
The Tunisian cursed the Islamists again and said he hoped that, in the wake of the revolution and the killing of Osama bin Laden, that story was now behind us. He was surprised that some people still described the events of September 11 as though they were part of the conquests of the prophet Mohammed.
After the depressing panel discussion, I went with my editor to a restaurant by the Spree river. I drank beer and recalled that September 11. On that day, I was working on a newspaper article about how long it takes a Palestinian from Hebron to get to Nablus by car. I left Hebron at 9 A.M. and changed taxis, along with the other passengers, at every earth and stone rampart created along the way by army bulldozers. At every such obstacle, everyone gets out of one shared taxi and looks for another to continue the journey. I went through barriers at the entrances and exits of the various stops. We had to change cars five times until, just before 4 P.M., I got a worried call from my father, who asked me to drop everything and come home because the world as we knew it was about to change.
I was really close to Nablus by then; we all got out of the taxis and waited in line at the Hawara checkpoint. The soldiers beckoned to the people in line to approach, one by one, with a hand gesture. In the meantime, another soldier looked out over a concrete cube piled high with sandbags, his rifle pointed at the waiting group. Scraps of information started to arrive from the checkpoint, something about American planes that were crashing. “Strength from God,” someone said. “Inshallah ya rab, amen,” I remember an elderly woman say as she lifted her head to the sky.
I didn’t get to Nablus that day. Instead, I took a shared taxi from Hawara and embarked on the trip back home, to Jerusalem. The news on the radio about events in New York was unclear, but the passengers were happy and filled with hope. Whatever hurt the Americans was welcome.
In Berlin, my editor talked about the changing market, the crisis in the book publishing industry in Europe, her concern that she might one day have to find a new profession, even though she had never considered any work other than editing and publishing. I told her that things were no better in Israel when it came to television, the press, books and the cinema, and then there was all the talk about the war.
She asked if I thought all these changes were related to September 11. I said I had no idea. She thinks it was a lot better, a lot more optimistic, at the start of the century. I nodded in assent. It’s bad now.
“Was it better for the Palestinians, too, 11 years ago?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, sipping my beer and smiling at the sight of an illuminated tour boat cruising down the river.